$3.3 million rampage: Serial arsonist who torched SalmonBusiness HQ jailed for life

Matthew Wilcox

“Everything from 30 years of work has just gone, completely disappeared.”

On a seemingly ordinary night in May, the historic Underfall Yard in Bristol became the scene of a terrible act of destruction.

A 46-year-old man, Robert Boyd-Stevenson, gained access to the locked site, a working boatyard in the Hotwells area of the city, and deliberately set fire to the main boat shed, packed with timber for the restoration of wooden ships.

Despite the presence of eight fire engines, and the tireless work of the emergency services, the blaze continued to burn throughout the night, visible for miles around, as nearby homes and houseboats were evacuated.

By the time the sun rose, the yard lay in ruins, and with it the heart of Bristol’s fragile maritime community.

Emergency crews battled through the night. Photo: Twitter

Life sentence 

On Monday November 27, Boyd-Stevenson was sentenced after pleading guilty to one count of arson with recklessness as to whether life was endangered.

Rebuilding the historic yard has been estimated to cost £2.6 million ($3.3 million) and take three years to complete.

Meanwhile, businesses that used the yard have ceased trading while others have faced bills of tens of thousands of pounds.

Fire crews look on as a boat moored next to SalmonBusiness burns. Photo: Twitter

Judge Picton imposed a life sentence with a minimum term of six years’ imprisonment after concluding Boyd-Stevenson posed a risk to the public from further offending.

An alternative, more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life was ordered to be left on file.

The defendant had previous convictions for arson and bomb hoaxes dating back to 1997 and served an 11-year sentence for similar crimes, the sentencing hearing was told.

Clearly dangerous

“It appears when things in your life are going wrong you react by starting fires or making bomb hoaxes,” The judge told Boyd-Stevenson. “It has happened with significant frequency to give rise to the concern you are highly likely to do so again – you are clearly dangerous.

The judge went on to detail how local business owners had suffered “extreme” trauma the night of the fire which will “stay with them for a long time”.

A huge amount of resources had to be deployed by emergency services on the night in question to protect public safety and surrounding properties to stop the blaze spreading, Detective sergeant Lisa Jones told the court.

“The seriousness of the fire cannot be underestimated. On another day, Robert Boyd-Stevenson could have seriously injured or killed someone,” said the police officer.

After the blaze John Raymond-Barker, Bristol Community Ferry Boats (BCFB) maintenance manager who had, said he had lost decades of work.

“Everything from 30 years of work has just gone, completely disappeared,” he said.

The fire raged through the boatyard, but miraculously, the home of SalmonBusiness, the historic Danish fishing boat Leason (centre), was saved from sinking. Photo: BBC

Close call

SalmonBusiness is headquarted in Leason, a well-known historic vessel based at the Underfall Yard.

The 60ft-long hajkutter was built at the Jensen and Lauridsen shipyard in Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark in 1931, where she was based for decades before relocating to Grimsby.

At the time of the fire, Leason was undergoing extensive renovations at her mooring in the yard in Bristol. Despite sustaining major damage from the heat caused by the destruction of neighbouring buildings and vessels, emergency services personnel were able to prevent the total destruction of the historic wooden boat.

Renovations remain ongoing.


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